So, some of you might be aware, others less so, but this Saturday is officially Northern League Day. What's that? Well a group of fans, us included are encouraging people to go and support grassroots football, and get out to your local Northern League team.
Sure we're at home to West Brom, but there's still games to get to. And let's be honest, after the drivel served up on Sunday you might feel like a bit of a change.
For now though to explain what it is, and why you should be there, I'll pass you over to Michael Hudson, organizer of the event and all round top bloke...This Saturday, while Sunderland take on West Bromwich Albion in what could yet turn into a crucial relegation clash and Newcastle United make their way down to Birmingham for the following afternoon's game with Darren Bent and Aston Villa, twenty games will be played at grounds across Cumbria and the North East in the second oldest football league in the world.
Founded in 1889, the Northern League has undergone a renaissance in recent years with a rejuvenated Spennymoor back challenging for the title and Whitley Bay making three Wembley finals in a row. Both are at home on Northern League Day, an idea which had been gestating since the afternoon of September 4th 2010 when, along with fifty-odd others and George Caulkin of The Times, I took advantage of the national Non-League Day and a free Premier League weekend to see Birtley Town beat Northallerton 2-0. "It’s the first time Birtley’s ever had any fans" one of the players joked as he walked off at half-time.
It wasn’t my first Northern League game. Like many others, some of my earliest memories of football are the pre-season friendlies between teams like Hebburn Town and the odd mixture of youth and has-beens that comprised the Newcastle United or Sunderland XIs. A few years ago I saw South Shields, with ex-million pound man Craig Russell a by then portly figure at left back. This season I started off at Horden Colliery Welfare in July and took in my twenty-first ground on a foggy night at Seaham Red Star.
Any Sunderland fans unable to make it to the Stadium Light will find plenty of red and white links at Northern League grounds. Sunderland RCA (away at Penrith in a 3pm kick off) have ex-England Under 21 international Martin "Son of Pele" Gray in their midfield and George Herd shouting instructions from the bench. Former reserve captain Jonjo Dickman now skippers title-challengers Consett, who host Bishop Auckland and Phil Brumwell. Defending champions Spennymoor Town have Craig Turns in goal and Lewis Dodds and Stephen Capper marshalling their defence. Spectators at South Shields versus Stokesley might recognise Irish centre back Niall McArdle in the Mariners starting eleven. While the majority of the matches clash with the action at the SoL, Whickham vs Washington kicks off at 11.30, giving more than enough time to support the Black Cats and the Northern League. If you can't make it this weekend, go the next time you can. I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I have.
Some people claim that non-league football is the ultimate antidote to the Premier League, a return to how things used to be. I know all the players names, they say, and we all meet in the pub right after the game. And maybe that happens. Other people – those who’ve never been to a game outside the top two divisions – think it’s all kick and rush, and one man and his dog, and freezing your bollocks off by the side of a muddy, divot-strewn pitch straight out of a compilation of highlights from the early 1970s. Maybe that happens too, but Northern League Day isn’t about either of those things. As football writer Iain Macintosh put it in his piece for the site, "It’s about paying a decent price to see a decent game. It’s about being able to have a decent pint at half-time. It’s about being able to stand up. More than anything, it’s about supporting a team who represent your local community, even if it’s only for one day".
Northern League Day is about the fun you can have with your mates, standing on a football touchline, watching two teams giving their all. It costs £4, a fiver at the most. Take a tenner and treat yourself to two drinks.
For any more information head to http://northernleagueday.wordpress.com/